The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall

Review Photo

Author: Chris Dolley
Release: 2016
Series: Reeves & Worcester
Genre: Steampunk | Mystery | Humor
Edition: Ebook
Pages: 246
Publisher: Book View Cafe
Buy it here: Book View Cafe

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 11.29.18 PMBlurb

Wodehouse steampunk version of The Hound of the Baskervilles!

An escaped cannibal, a family curse … and Reginald Worcester turning up on the doorstep. Could things get any worse for the Baskerville-Smythe family?

As the bodies pile up, only a detective with a rare brain – and Reggie’s is so rare it’s positively endangered – can even hope to solve the case.

But… there is the small matter that most of the guests aren’t who they say they are, the main suspect has cloven feet, and a strange mist hangs over great Grimdark Mire.

Luckily the young master has Reeves, his automaton valet, and Emmeline, his suffragette fiancée, on hand to assist.

This novel is the fifth Reeves & Worcester Steampunk mystery and is set a few months after The Aunt Paradox. The first two stories were published in the ebook, What Ho, Automaton! And the first four stories were published in the trade paperback, What Ho, Automata.

 

 Spoiler’s Ahead

The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall begins when Reggie decides to visit his fiancé, Emmeline, who has been shipped off to Baskerville Hall. Her relatives do not approve of their engagement and hope that she will forget about him and agree to marry the heir to the Baskervill-Smythe title. Reggie concocts a plan to visit Baskerville Hall by posing as a long-lost relative named Roderick and convinces Reeves, his steam-powered automaton valet, to go along with the plot.

The family accepts Reggie as one of their own, although the matriarch of the family, Lady Julia, declares him to be an idiot at first sight. It is not long after he arrives that the murders start to occur and Henry, the heir, agrees to let Reggie and Reeves investigate.

This is where the steampunk elements of the story really come into play. The first “murder” at the household concerns an automaton gardener. The family does not consider this to be a “real” crime, and even Reggie has his doubts:

“Is this even a murder?” I asked. “Can a machine be murdered?”

“If that was Reeves under the log pile, you’d call it murder,” said Emmeline.

“That goes without saying,” I said. “No log would go unturned. But, philosophically, would it be murder? Automata can be repaired.”

Reeves coughed. It wasn’t a philosophical cough. “If I may contribute to your musings, sir, I would point out that humans can be reanimated.”

“I don’t think that’s quite the same, Reeves,” I said.

Reeves expression turned distinctly sniffy. I wouldn’t have liked to have met either of his eyebrows in a dark alleyway.

“Would that be because automata are not regarded as having souls, sir?”
(pp. 48-49).

Is it right to treat sentient machines as mere tools? Should reanimated humans have the same rights as those who have not yet died? Who can say for certain whether someone, or some thing, has a soul? Moments of grave, philosophical discussion are interspersed throughout the story, but never become overwhelming. They add a layer of complexity that makes the storyworld interesting.

Although The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall is part of a series, it can easily be read as a solo novel. The influence of P.G. Wodehouse (an English humorist) can be seen in the characters of Reggie and Reeves (akin to Bertie and Jeeves). There are also obvious similarities between The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Fans of the mystery genre will recognize elements from other great mystery writers, like Agatha Christie. (Reggie’s mention of “little grey cells” calls to mind the character of Hercule Poirot). But few casual mystery readers will draw a parallel between the novel and the story that is recognized as the first modern detective story, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

For those who are only familiar with Poe as a writer of “spooky” poetry, it will come as a surprise to learn that he invented the conventions many readers equate with the modern detective story, such as a brilliant, though odd, detective, his/her personal friend who serves as narrator, and the final revelation (dénouement) being presented before the reasoning that leads up to it. The murderer in Poe’s story (MAJOR SPOILER) is an orangutan that has escaped from his owner. In a clear parallel, one of the chief suspects (at least in Reggie’s mind) in The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall is the household orangutan, Lupin: “Butlers and orangutans—it was usually one or the other that did it” (p. 48).

Did the orangutan commit the murders in Baskerville Hall, or is there something more nefarious afoot? Readers will have to pick up the novel to find out.

Review

The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall is the type of a novel where familiarity with the mystery genre and with the foibles of famous master detectives from other series helps a reader “get” the humor. This familiarity, however, will also make the mystery fairly obvious. This did not negatively affect my enjoyment; I was in the mood for something light and it did not bother me that I was able to guess the outcome based on my knowledge of The Hound of the Baskervilles and other Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot mysteries. In fact I would say this is a positive attribute, because it made me feel pleased with myself as a reader, and perhaps a bit smug.

Still, like watching an episode of Columbo, where the viewer “sees” the murder and then watches how the detective solves the case, it is important to remember that the reader has the advantage. In this case my advantage was in reading so many British murder mysteries over the years that I now expect someone to break into a dénouement at the end of every social gathering. (Hasn’t happened yet—more’s the pity.)

Humor is a genre I would love to see explored more in a steampunk world. Many of the works are serious and thought provoking; moments of laughter, especially slapstick, are few and far between. The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall makes for a fun summer read: the steampunk elements are essential to the story, the characters are engaging, and the dialogue is lively. In addition, fans of the mystery genre should have an enjoyable time seeing their favorite detectives parodied.

 

Clockwork Fairies: A Tor.Com Original

Review Photo
Author: Cat Rambo
Release: February 1, 2011
Genre: Steampunk | Fantasy
Edition: Kindle
Pages: 24
Publisher: Tor Books
Buy it here: AMAZON

Blurb

Desiree feels the most at home with her clockwork creations, but Claude worries about all this science and Darwinist nonsense—after all, where do clockwork fairies fall in the Great Chain of Being?

Review—with Spoilers

John Barth described Cat Rambo’s writings as “works of urban mythopoeia” — her stories take place in a universe where chickens aid the lovelorn, Death is just another face on the train, and Bigfoot gives interviews to the media on a daily basis. Clockwork Faeries is another entry into this type of world where steampunk and magic exist side-by-side.

Clockworks Faeries is the story of Desiree, a mulatto heiress who grew up in Rambo’s reimagined Victorian Era England ostracized from upper class London society simply because of the color of her skin. It is told through the point of view of Claude, her fiancé, who is a traditional English gentleman, Oxford Dean, and stout believer in the religious dictates of the Church of England.
What makes Rambo a masterful writer is her use of conversation, interior monologue, and immediate events to describe the world in which Desiree lives. There are no long passages of exposition; the readers see the world through the eyes of Claude, mostly at the same time that he experiences it. (Some immediate events and conversation will trigger a short reminiscence on his part that directly applies to the storyline.)

The story opens with Claude visiting Desiree’s house one Sunday evening and encountering her newest creations:

At first I thought them hummingbirds or large dragonflies. One hung poised before my eyes in a flutter of metallic skin and isinglass wings. Delicate gears spun in the wrist of a pinioned hand holding a needle-sharp sword. Desiree had created another marvel. Clockwork fairies, bee-winged, glittering like tinsel. Who would have dreamed such things, let alone made them real? Only Desiree.
(Rambo, 2011)

Throughout the story Desiree continues her work and builds even more complex creatures. While he marvels at them, Claude also disapproves. He is very much concerned with appearances and the ways that society views both himself and his fiancé. The members of the upper class will not care about her inventions; they will only care about how she dresses, speaks, and behaves at social functions. Throughout the story Claude gives the impression of a weak man who almost blindly follows the values of his society, except for his fascination with Desiree.

This is what makes their love story tragic. Desiree is attracted to Claude because of the way he looks and his position as a Dean at Oxford. Being accepted in a society that made her late mother a near shut-in is important to her, but it hurts when the color of her skin exposes her to stares and outright snubs by others of her class.

Claude finds her beautiful and enjoys her company, but believes she could be so much more: “Dressed properly,” he tells her “you would take the city by storm” (Rambo, 2011). In effect, he is sometimes blind to the reactions of others. “Did you not see Lady Worth turn away lest she contaminate herself by speaking to a Negro? Or perhaps you did not overhear the sporting gentleman laying bets on what I would be like between the sheets?” she asks him after a social gathering (Rambo, 2011). He is shocked that such words would come out of her mouth and does not think to comfort her over the insults she suffered.

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Clockwork Fairies: A Tor.Com Original

Desiree’s father, Lord Southland, actively discourages the marriage because he believes Claude is not intellectual enough for his daughter and believes too much in religion. Claude admits that he is interested in Desiree for her inheritance as well as her beauty, but that is not unusual in the Victorian Era where marriages were arranged more often than not among the upper class based on social position and wealth. Lord Southland does everything in his power to entice Desiree to reject Claude’s offer. But Claude has something his daughter wants: a place in society where she will be accepted. They both want what the other has to offer; even though it is not everything they would wish.

A twist of fate intervenes when Lord Tyndall, an Irish noble and landowner, takes an interest in Desiree’s clockwork designs. Tyndall invites Desiree, her father, and Claude to his estate for a shooting party. Desiree is delighted, for she had enjoyed speaking to Tyndall about her work and wants to see the countryside that inspired her design for the clockwork faeries. Although he feels that Tyndall might have ulterior motives for the invitation, for the man seems entranced by Desiree, Claude agrees to the journey. There, isolated from English society in a castle overlooking the Irish seaside, they are able to look at each other, and their own desire to pursue the marriage, clearly.

I enjoyed Clockwork Faeries a great deal.  Cat Rambo weaves a wonderful tale with settings and characters that I enjoyed.  The steampunk elements are essential to the story and the “touch” of magic in the Irish castle by the sea is not overdone; it adds a sparkle to a story and helps push Claude and Desiree toward a resolution that they may not have otherwise reached.

This is a “recommended read” for anyone who enjoys Neo-Victorian Era Steampunk and Fantasy.

 

The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

Review PhotoRelease: September 29, 2015
Author: Jim Butcher
Series: The Cinder Spires
Genre: Steampunk | Fantasy | Adventure | Humor
Edition: Kindle and Audio
Pages: 640
Publisher: ROC
Buy it here: AMAZON

Blurb

Since time immemorial, the Spires have sheltered humanity, towering for miles over the mist-shrouded surface of the world. Within their halls, aristocratic houses have ruled for generations, developing scientific marvels, fostering trade alliances, and building fleets of airships to keep the peace.
Captain Grimm commands the merchant ship, Predator. Fiercely loyal to Spire Albion, he has taken their side in the cold war with Spire Aurora, disrupting the enemy’s shipping lines by attacking their cargo vessels. But when the Predator is severely damaged in combat, leaving captain and crew grounded, Grimm is offered a proposition from the Spirearch of Albion—to join a team of agents on a vital mission in exchange for fully restoring Predator to its fighting glory.
And even as Grimm undertakes this dangerous task, he will learn that the conflict between the Spires is merely a premonition of things to come. Humanity’s ancient enemy, silent for more than ten thousand years, has begun to stir once more. And death will follow in its wake…

Review

I am a fan of Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series, The Dresden Files, so I admit to being excited by the fact that he had plans for a new series set in a steampunk world. These last two months have been a busy time for me professionally, so I purchased both the Kindle and the Audible editions of the novel hoping to save a bit of time with the Whispersync function. (When I review a book I generally read it two times and take notes. This is a bit longer time commitment than simply reading a novel for pleasure.) Unfortunately I have Apple products (iMac and iPad) and Whispersync does not work with them. The iMac and iPad Audible versions did not sync with each other either. Ah well—the best laid plans of mice and men! I am glad, though, that I purchased both: Euan Morton narrates the Audible version and he is such a versatile actor it is almost impossible to believe one person is voicing each character. This is a book I will listen to again.

Spoilers Ahead

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a wonderful addition to the steampunk genre. It is not set in Victorian England or the American West, although these time periods do serve as touchstones of inspiration. It is set in its own world and it incorporates unique aesthetic touches.

The world-building in this series is incredibly detailed, yet is not intrusive to the narrative. It takes a deft touch for a writer to include so much information without it bogging down the story, but Butcher is able to achieve this. I believe that Butcher succeeds because of his experience as a writer—because of his years of honing his craft. If you are interested in a “behind-the-scenes” type view of writing, visit Jim Butcher’s Live Journal. It contains detailed, step-by-step posts on how to write a novel.

The steampunk elements are essential to the story. Airships, spire cities at war, and almost magical seeming gauntlets that shoot out beams of light are part-and-parcel of life for the characters. The society is structured and multi-leveled.

One interesting aspect of the society is the (mostly) mandatory military service for the children of the wealthier/aristocratic houses. Families who have only one child do not have to send their heir into service, but most of them do so despite the danger. It is a particular badge of honor to serve. The tradition in the novel reminds me of the real-life service that Great Britain’s royal family has partaken in over the last few generations. Prince Harry, the second child of Prince Charles, even served in active duty in Afghanistan.

Although there is a heavy focus on aristocratic members of society in the first novel of the series, the characters run the gamut of society: Bridget, scion of a once-prominent noble house on the verge of ruin and her talking cat, Rowl, Highborn Gwendolyn Lancaster, her “warrior born” cousin, Benedict; the disgraced Captain Grimm; and master etherealist Ferus and his assistant, Folly, are a motley group of grizzled veterans and novices that are sent off to stop the mysterious force behind a very coordinated and deadly series of attacks on Spire Albion by its rival, Spire Aurora.

The chapters are narrated by different points of view. The character location is presented in a sub-heading at the start of each chapter and the voice of each is unique. It is not difficult to determine who is speaking simply by the diction each one uses. This is particularly effective with Euan Morton’s narration in the Audible book where he does an excellent job portraying the diversity of each character’s manner of speech.

The battle scenes, both on the ground and between the airships, are thrilling. It has elements of the swashbuckling adventures of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brien and just a touch of Joss Whedon’s Firefly:

“Evasive action!” Grimm ordered. The distant screaming roars of the Itasca’s guns continued, and he heard the hungry hissing of blasts streaking through the mists around them, making them glow with hellish light. They had been lucky to survive a single glancing hit. Thirty guns raked the mist, and Grimm knew the enemy ship would be rolling onto her starboard side, giving the
gunners a chance to track their approximate line of descent. If the same gunner or one of his fellows got lucky again, Predator would not be returning home to Spire Albion.

Jim ButcherThe action rarely stops in this novel and the world is a steampunk-themed playground waiting for Butcher to explore in future novels. What lies on the surface of the world? What created the mists? And what game is Albion, ruler of Spire Albion, playing? Readers will have to wait for those answers as the series develops.

 

Book Review: The Earl and the Artificer

Review Photo
Conceptual Artwork by Chris Pavesic. Photo Credits: Dreamstime and Chris Pavesic.

Author: Kara Jorgensen
Release: January 30, 2016
Series: The Ingenious Mechanical Devices
Genre: Steampunk | Mystery
Edition: Kindle
Pages: 302
Publisher: Fox Collie Publishing
Buy it here: Amazon

 

Blurb

What mysteries lay buried beneath weeds and dust?

Following their wedding, Eilian and Hadley Sorrell journey to Brasshurst Hall, his family’s abandoned ancestral home. As Eilian struggles to reconcile his new roles as husband and earl, he finds the house and the surrounding town of Folkesbury are not as they first appear.

Behind a mask of good manners and gentle breeding lurks a darker side of Folkesbury. As the Sorrells struggle to fit in with the village’s genteel society, they find their new friends are at the mercy of Randall Nash, a man who collects secrets.

Soon, Eilian and Hadley become entangled in a web of murder, theft, and intrigue that they may never escape, with the manor at the heart of it all. Something long thought lost and buried within Brasshurst’s history has been found—something worth killing for.

Review

For my first post on the Steampunk Cavaliers I wanted to review an author whose work I know I enjoy. As with any genre, steampunk novels vary in quality and in style. Finding an author whose work you enjoy, whose story worlds you like to visit again and again, is something to be treasured and shared.

The first time I read one of Jorgensen’s Ingenious Mechanical Devices novels, The Winter Garden, my area was under a tornado warning. The TV was on in the background spouting alerts and I started reading on my iPad to keep my mind off the storm. The fact that it held my attention speaks volumes.

Jorgensen’s new novel, The Earl and the Artificer, is book three in her Ingenious Mechanical Devices series, but works just as well as a stand-alone novel. The novel continues the story of the two main characters, Eilian and Hadley, from Earl of Brass. The characters have married and moved on with their lives as the new Earl and Countess of Dorset, but their personalities remain on track. It is not too big of a spoiler to tell you that the first chapter opens with Hadley elbow-deep in steamer engine innards, covered in grease, trying to fix their burned-out vehicle:

Leaning into the front of the cab, she brought her face close to the boiler as the heat of the kettle stung her cheeks. The metal coils of the heating element had melted into a blackened cake that smelled of burnt hair. Using the sides of the hood for leverage, she pivoted back until her satin boots met the road’s white gravel. Staring down at her cream dress, already streaked with soot and grease, she sighed and wiped her hands across it before smoothing a lock of henna hair behind her ear.

Of course her new white dress becomes filthy and in this state she has to meet their new neighbors and their cousin, Randall Nash, who seems to judge her appearance rather harshly.

Both Eilian and Hadley are having a hard time adjusting to so many changes in their lives, and part of the novel revolves around the new dimensions in their relationship as husband and wife and, of course, setting up their household in a Gothic-style mansion reminiscent of the BBC’s Downton Abbey. Add to this a mixture of steampunk devices and somewhat magical-seeming elements that are not simply thrown-in for effect but are actually integral to the story.

There is a treasure at Brasshurst Hall hidden in the ruins, but to discover it Eilian and Hadley have to brave physical threats and overcome the emotional debris of his tragic family history.  Suspense builds as the story continues, as does the sense of impeding danger.  Without giving away too much, I will just say that the resolution will not be something most readers will expect, but it fits perfectly with the story world and the characters.

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 12.42.15 AMI recommend The Earl and the Artificer for anyone who enjoys a Victorian-style steampunk novel filled with intriguing characters, mystery, suspense, and danger.